Friday. 21/5/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Alamy

Opinion / Carlota Rebelo

Train reaction

It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without Eurostar, the high-speed train service that connects the UK to Europe. Over the years I’ve made countless journeys on it, from visiting friends in Amsterdam to daytrips to Paris for work. One of my favourite Eurostar excursions was when I used it to move countries: I despatched all my bags at Brussels Midi (or Zuid as it’s known in Flemish) and two days later travelled light as a passenger and collected my belongings at London’s St Pancras International.

Back in January, the cross-Channel railway looked as though it might have reached the end of the line. The operator had asked both UK and French authorities to provide urgently needed support as the pandemic caused a dramatic 95 per cent drop in demand, cutting its service back to just one train a day between London and Paris, and another between Amsterdam and Brussels. Conversations were already underway about what to do with the groundbreaking and crucial (but also expensive to maintain) links if its trains were returned to their depots.

But now there might be light at the end of the Eurotunnel after all. The operator announced this week that it secured a £250m (€290m) rescue package and was no longer at risk of collapsing. France’s state railway SNCF, together with other investors, bank loans and funds overseen by Belgium’s state train operator SNCB, rallied together to provide the necessary cash. Eurostar embodies so much of what it means to me to be European: open borders and ease of travel between continental capitals. As international journeys slowly resume and restrictions are cautiously lifted, we’ve all been looking for positive signals ahead. The rescue of Eurostar is one with which train lovers – and Europeans – will be on board.

Image: Getty Images

Rights / Hungary

Term limits

The Council of Europe is about to endure an awkward handover. The foreign affairs decision-making body changes the chairperson of its Committee of Ministers every six months by cycling through its 47 member states in alphabetical order. Today, Hungary’s right-wing foreign minister Péter Szijjártó (pictured) will assume the position from Germany’s centre-left Heiko Maas. All signs suggest that the Hungarian will pursue a drastically different agenda from his predecessor. “It’s obvious that Szijjártó will not make the rule of law and human rights a priority during his presidency,” Lydia Gall, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, tells The Monocle Minute. Gall notes that the Council of Europe’s recent report denounced Hungary for a slew of failures in human rights and media freedoms. “The Hungarian government has been undermining the core values and rules of the EU quite openly,” she says. “There’s a real risk that this approach will be adopted under Szijjártó.” The council will have little choice but to grit its teeth for six months – until it’s Italy’s turn.

Image: Shutterstock

Diplomacy / Middle East & Asia

United response

It has been 11 days since Israel began launching airstrikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire from Hamas, with scores of militants and hundreds of civilians killed in the process. However, Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, once traditional allies of the Palestinians, have remained uncharacteristically silent after recent efforts to normalise relations with Israel. In their place, the Southeast Asian Muslim-majority countries of Malaysia, Indonesia (pictured) and Brunei have taken a tougher stance.

The three governments issued an unprecedented joint statement last Sunday, condemning the offensive and Israel’s “inhumane, colonial and apartheid” policies towards the Palestinians. On Monday, Malaysia separately denounced the UN Security Council’s inaction – a move that will be welcomed by Beijing, which has been pushing the UN body to get involved. It marks a rare show of diplomatic force from these Southeast Asian nations and a noteworthy sign of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shaking up the world stage.

Image: Getty Images

Business / USA

Special delivery

The value of the US Postal Service (USPS) will have been apparent to many during the pandemic: package deliveries surged 19 per cent in the past fiscal year and it played a crucial role in November’s presidential election as more Americans voted by mail than ever before. You could say, it’s delivered. Now the USPS could finally be put on a solid financial footing after a bipartisan deal was presented in the US Senate this week, cutting $5bn (€4bn) in health-insurance liabilities from its annual payroll. Supporters have long argued that such liabilities prevented the USPS from investing in its own modernisation and improving services. Exactly how it should modernise (whether it should focus on packages, double down on old-fashioned mail or throw the money at a fleet of drop-off drones) remains hotly debated in Washington. But agreement on perhaps the biggest step, giving the service a sounder foundation, gets our stamp of approval.

Image: Andrea Avezzó

Design / Italy

Structurally sound

The Venice Architecture Biennale gets underway in earnest tomorrow. One unexpected silver lining of the pandemic-induced rescheduling is that curators of the pavilions in the Giardini and exhibitions in the Arsenale have been able to sink additional time into refining their projects. “It’s probably the best-made biennale ever,” Dániel Kovács, the curator of Hungary’s national pavilion, tells The Monocle Minute. The themes of this year’s edition are also very much of the moment, with diversity, gender parity and climate change coming to the fore. Ideas include the abstract, such as Studio Other Spaces’ “Future Assembly” (pictured), in which a reimagined UN assembly gives prominence to Earth’s natural elements; or an exhibition pondering how architecture can help to ease the uprooted feeling among refugees. And there are more concrete projects, such as MIT’s submersible wave barriers that harness tidal energy to redistribute sand and, with it, rebuild islands. Lots to digest? Certainly. And plenty to debate too.

Don’t forget to check out the Venice Biennale Special Edition newspaper, which will be available in Venice from tomorrow.

Image: Shutterstock

M24 / The Foreign Desk

Explainer 266: Chile’s new constitution

After years of mass demonstrations against the inequities in Chile’s constitution – which was drawn up during the 1980s military dictatorship – the government of president Piñera granted the citizens a referendum to scrap it. The result was an overwhelming “yes”. Voting took place last weekend to determine representatives who would write a new set of principles but, as Andrew Mueller explains, the results have not quite worked in the government’s favour.

Monocle Films / Global

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